Next month the second part of the Synod on the Family will commence in Rome. Articles, theories, and concerns have been flying around social media for over a year now. Discussion on the Synod is a good thing and should be encouraged. What I have seen in many circles however, is a sense of foreboding that betrays a fear of a change in doctrine that runs completely counter to what we understand the Catholic Church to be. That foreboding is met with glee in many circles who are touting the Church will get with the times and completely revamp 2000 years of moral law in order to please the Zeitgeist of our own age. Both are wrong and neither understands how the Church operates.
First, let’s remember that the Church is not a human institution at her ontological level. Yes, on the outside she looks like an institutional structure, complete with a hierarchy, and extensive array of offices with the Pope at the head. The ultimate reality, however, is that she is the Mystical Body of Christ. Her head is Christ and the Pope is subordinate to Him. Christ Himself promised that the power of Hell would not prevail against her:
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. l will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This passage from the Gospel of Matthew is often used to explain the Papacy and our understanding of Apostolic Succession. What it also tells us is that what has been revealed to Saint Peter, the Apostles, and the Church is not from earthly realities, but from the Blessed Trinity. The Church’s understanding is that the Holy Spirit will preserve the Deposit of Faith, that which is teaching on faith and morals, from error even in the presence of sinful men and sinful women. This has repeatedly played out throughout the Church’s history.
What exactly is the hierarchy doing through the Synod on the Family? She is doing what she always does, she is engaging in open dialogue in order to better understand the heresies of the day and to better express the truth in the face of those falsehood so that the Church may evangelize the world. What many people forget is that the Church has always encouraged open and honest dialogue. Just because dialogue occurs, does not mean that the Church is accepting everything that is said in councils or synods. In fact, a great many heresies have been proposed at such gatherings throughout the Church’s history. Let’s consider a few examples.
Arius and the Council of Nicea 325
The Council of Nicea was one of the ecumenical councils that helped to decide what the Church believes about Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity. The Catholic Encyclopedia gives a brief explanation of Arianism:
“Such is the genuine doctrine of Arius. Using Greek terms, it denies that the Son is of one essence, nature, or substance with God; He is not consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, and therefore not like Him, or equal in dignity, or co-eternal, or within the real sphere of Deity. The Logos which St. John exalts is an attribute, Reason, belonging to the Divine nature, not a person distinct from another, and therefore is a Son merely in figure of speech.”
In other words, Jesus Christ was not God according to Arius. Arianism denies the divinity of Christ and distorts the relationship of the Blessed Trinity. This is a considerable heresy that has wreaked havoc for centuries. Arius spoke at the Council of Nicea and defended his heresy. Tradition holds that St. Nicholas was so appalled that he punched Arius and was thrown out of the council.
What happened after open discussion occurred? Arius was condemned for being the heretic he was and the Church officially pronounced on the matter. It was at this council that the Church compiled the Nicene Creed (Niceo-Constantinopolitan Creed) that we recite every Sunday at Mass.
The historian Dr. Robert Louis Wilken describes the first few century battles between heresy and orthodoxy as follows:
“It is not an edifying history. Few of the protagonists, whether bishops or monks or emperors (and empresses), come off looking good. Yet there were heroes as well as villains, and the issues plunged so deeply into the heart of Christian belief that they recur again and again even to this day…”
The reality is that the Church has engaged in fierce debate since the beginning. Competing political, theological, and economic agendas have always been at play. Today they take place on a massive scale because of technological advances and the worldwide phenomenon of social media. Consider the fact that certain battles within the Church resulted in exile or death for those holding orthodox positions.
Council of Chalcedon 451 and its long lasting implications
The Council of Chalcedon was called in response to the Monophysite heresy, which held that Jesus only had one nature. Monophysites believed that Christ’s divine nature swallowed up his human nature. Chalcedon upheld the dual natures of Christ in on Person, known as the hypostatic union. It would take centuries to resolve theological battles that would erupt in its wake.
One of the most virulent was the Monothelite heresy which held that Christ only had one will, a divine will. This, of course, would fly in the face of the human nature of Christ since God made human beings with a will. St. Maximus Confessor, with the approval of Pope Saint Martin I, offered a solution to the problem proposed in this heresy.
“If the Word made flesh does not himself will naturally as a human being and accomplish things in accordance with his human nature, how can he willingly undergo hunger and thirst, labor and weariness, sleep and everything else common to man? For the Word does not simply will and accomplish these things in accordance with the transcendent and infinite nature he share with the Father and the Holy Spirit…For if it is only as God that he wills these things, and not as himself being a human being, then either the body has become divine by nature, or the Word has changed its nature and become flesh by abandoning its own divinity, or the flesh is not at all in itself endowed with rational soul, but in itself completely lifeless and irrational.”
While the truth would be upheld by the Church, Pope Martin and St. Maximus were thrown into imperial politics. Pope Saint Martin is the last martyr Pope and he died in exile of starvation and dehydration. St. Maximus lost his right hand and tongue and was exiled for proclaiming and defending the truth. The issue was not fully resolved until the Council of Constantinople in 680.
To understand what is going on in the Church today, we must have a clear understanding of how the Church operates, as well as her history. Heresies are a constant problem that must be addressed by the Church. The heresies of our day are against the dignity of the human person, sexuality, and marriage. The Church leaders must hear from different views in order to get a clear picture of what is going on worldwide. Those who are loyal to Christ and His Church have a hard time hearing these heresies spoken within the Church. This is what is known as the sensus fidelium. Those loyal to the Church and in union with the Bishops know instinctively when something is heretical. That being said, the Church cannot confront and combat these heresies if she never discusses and clarifies exactly what they are at this point in time. The Church is reading the times and figuring out how to respond. That reading of the times is not a “get with the times”, it is a genuine deepening of the truth that Christ has given us and that the Holy Spirit preserves from error. It is impossible for the Church to approve re-marriage without an annulment, gay marriage, or contraception. To worry is a waste of time and forgetful of what the Church is and Who protects her from error.
When the Synod opens again next month, we need to keep in mind that doctrine cannot change. The truth is from God and protected by the Holy Spirit. Believing that it will change is to violate what we know as Catholics. There is no need to despair and there is no need to believe the Church will change moral teaching, because she cannot. Pastoral changes may happen, as in a revamping of the annulment system. That is not a change in divorce and remarriage, gay marriage, or contraception. It is also vital that Catholics stop getting their news from secular sources. The main stream media cannot possibly report accurately on the Church because they do not have an ontological understanding of the Church. There are many competing agendas, ignore them. Our call is to pray for our leaders, trust in Christ’s promises, and read Church history for a better understanding. Let us trust in the Most Holy Trinity and Christ’s Church.
image: Jjensen / Wikimedia Commons